Should Social Media Be This Taxing



Pay Tax. Use VPN. Or have no Social Media. The three choices Ugandans have left as the country lashes back in protest against the latest tax.

On the 1st July 2018 Ugandans woke up to blank phone screens, left without messages and notifications from the social media world as the OTT (over – the – top) tax was enforced. This tax has proven to be more than a mere nuisance or a law that’s soon overturned, now in its fourth month the OTT tax is accused of limiting freedom of speech and access to a social space, disproportionately for the poor.

I was among those waking up that morning confused about what we were being taxed for. OTT services are defined as those that offer voice and messaging services through the internet. So we unable to access the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts, LinkedIN, over 60 platforms in total. Ugandans are expected to pay Shs 200 a day to access these platforms which translates to £0.04p a day, £1.20 a month or £14.60 a year. When you take into account that almost a quarter of the population live under the poverty line, this is a significant proportion of their spending’s.Picture1

Protests break out in Uganda – Credit: CNN 

Uganda’s frustration soon became apparent, with protests taking place across the country. Angry mobs formed online and in the street,  with some being broken up by police using tear gas.

Originally President Museveni wrote to the finance minister describing the tax as a way to ‘cope with the consequences of olugambo [gossiping]’ (BBC 2018). However, the Finance Minister argues the tax is needed to help increase spending on access to electricity, consequently allowing more people to access social media. The tax has also been quoted as a way to decrease government borrowing and aid money. With many reasons being thrown around, it remains to be seen where the estimated Shs 400 billion – Shs 1.5 trillion will be spent.

Unlike limits to the internet seen before in Uganda, this is a monetary restriction, unreasonably affecting the poor as they are more likely to be unable to pay. This tax will reduce the number and demographic of people on social media. This infringes on the concept argued by Castells (2007) that media is a social space where power is decided. As well as Habermas (1998) theory of a Public Sphere where media is a space between the economy and the state where free speech is allowed and opinions can form. Critics of the tax accuse the government of attempting to shut down this space. In reality however this space will not be solely closed through the tax, but only accessed by certain people, those who can pay and those who choose to go online through VPN (Virtual Private Network). This leaves only certain voices apparent in the social media world in Uganda, the heaviest reduction is likely to be the poor, further increasing their lack of voice.

Although there have been various attempts to control mass media worldwide (Castells 2007), this attempt is differentiated through its financial implementation. It is not the first time Ugandans have experienced limited access to social media, with the elections in 2016 bringing two rounds of social media being shut down. In both 2016 and 2017 Uganda was viewed as having a ‘partly free’ media. Despite some Ugandans censoring themselves online to avoid potential harassment, many took to Twitter to voice their outrage through #ThisTaxMustGo and #SocialMediaTax suggesting digital activism is still high. The implications these blocks have on good democracy is significant, the first block in 2016 was during the runup to the presidential election, it significantly reduced the number of opinions online and so access to fair information on the election. It can be argued this block of social media exemplifies a wider decrease in democracy (Colle 2007) , although government insisted it was needed for security reasons.

Uganda may have been the first country to introduce such widespread taxation on social media however, despite the public rage Zimbabwe may well be taking a leaf out of their book. Zimbabwe’s government are choosing to tax internet mobile phone calls at 30 ngwee a day (£0.02). This suggests, unless governments start to listen to the demands of public protest, Uganda’s social media tax could be a sign of a more reduced social space in the media within the region, as well as Uganda itself.



BBC, 2018. ‘Uganda social media tax to be reviewed’. [Online]. Available at: [18th October 2018]

Castells, M., 2007. ‘Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society’. International Journal of Communication, 1, pp.237–259.

Colle, R.D., 2007. ‘Advocacy and Interventions: Readings in Communication and Development’. Ithaca, New York: The Internet-First University Press.

Wikipedia, ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’. [Online] Available at: [23rd October 2018]

A Window of Africa

We are all used to seeing images of African children in NGO campaigns. But which images are the most effective? ‘Poverty Porn’ and ‘Deliberate Positivism’ are opposing techniques used in humanitarian communication to illicit the viewer to donate, but are they ‘two sides of the same coin?’ (Scott 2014) relaying the same message, the South is dependant on the North.


This image was used in Save The Children’s ‘One Child’ advert in 2012. It depicts ‘Fedosi’ a little girl suffering in silence. It is an example of Poverty Porn. Her big, tear filled eyes, stare directly at the viewer; a silent plea for help. Signs of infection are shown on her skin as we are told she suffers from malnutrition and the only hope she has is ‘your support’. Immediately the viewer empathises with this helpless little girl and so is drawn into the advert.

Poverty Porn is a strategy based around the idea ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ (Sanuore 2005). It focuses on exposure of the body, hence the name, attempting to capture the most explicit images, to raise the most money possible. 

Only Fedosi’s face is portrayed, making us focus on the victim rather than the cause of such poverty. Images such as this only capture a window of an issue, this window often focuses on a suffering child as they are seen as innocent of their situation (Cameron and Haanstra 2008). The viewer is given no sense of ‘the bigger picture’. This has negative consequences as it reinforces the idea of ‘us’ (the North) and the ‘other’ (the South) (Sanuore 2005); conveying the message the North is responsible for solving poverty in the South. Achieved via a ‘logic of complicity’, (Chouliaraki 2010) we feel guilt upon viewing such images and so are drawn into helping, which in most cases involves donating. 

However, it is believed that Poverty Porn is no longer working as it causes ‘compassion fatigue’ where viewers become immune to images of suffering and so give less money. Furthermore, it reinstates to the public a ‘hierarchy of human life’; the idea the South depends on the North (Scott 2014). 

Despite the negative consequences of Poverty Porn, these images do raise the money NGOs need to work, especially in humanitarian crisis (Scott 2014). As such they are still used by many NGOs.

Deliberate Positivism emerged as a new form of advertisement after the 1989 Code of Conduct of Images and Messages Relating to the Third World. It opposes Poverty Porn, focussing on empowering individuals in poverty.


These children play happily in water, it is ‘the first time in their lives’ they’ve had access to clean water according to WaterAid. The differences between this image and the one of Fedosi are significant, considering they have the same objective, to provoke the public to donate. The children have wide smiles, are well clothed and splash happily in their newfound joy. In sharp contrast to the ‘One Child’ advert, this image highlights the ‘shared humanity’ (Scott 2014) the photographer wants the audience to feel, between themselves and the children. This philosophy, that we are all the same people, is perhaps to some an ideal that is unattainable. It does however focus on positivity and equality, factors needing to be relayed due to the consequences of Poverty Porn. 

Deliberate Positivism focuses on how children can have access to basic needs through aid, rather than on a child’s suffering. This empowers both the child ‘suffering’ and the donor, as it suggests both have a voice (Chouliaraki 2010). Thus encouraging the public to donate.

However, these images still only show a ‘window’ of Africa; failing to address the complexity of development issues. They do not explain social, economic or political situations of a country, nor do they give insight into the causes of poverty (Chouliaraki 2010). The WaterAid image was released on their Instagram account stating ‘Water has arrived in Vimphere, the village at the centre of our Winter Appeal’. No explanation as to why this village was chosen or why water has not reached this village before, is offered; leaving the reader with little sense of place. More must be done within Humanitarian Communication to accurately represent poverty, in order to deepen public knowledge. Furthermore, the idea of ‘us’ and the ‘other’ is, again reinstated, reducing the ‘sufferers’ agency in suggesting we (the North) need to ‘save’ the ‘others’.

As such the public is constantly exposed to only a ‘window’ of Africa; nothing country specific, no detail on the causes of poverty and no suggestion, other than donation, of how to tackle poverty.


Cameron, J. & Haanstra, A. (2008) ‘Development Made Sexy: how it happened and what it means’, Third World Quarterly 29(8), pp. 1475-1489.

Chouliaraki, L. (2010) ‘Post-humanitarianism: Humanitarian communication beyond a politics of pity’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 13(2), pp. 107–126.

Sanuore, R. (2005) ‘The Pitfalls and Consequences of Development ‘Pornography’. Available online:

Scott, M 2014, Media and Development, Zed Books, London. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [3 March 2017].